Tiny heavyweights: The space(s) of yeast in fermentation-focused material transformations

Authors: Walter Furness*, Texas State University - San Marcos, Colleen Myles, Texas State University - San Marcos
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Social Theory, Wine
Keywords: yeast, fermentation, synthetic, more-than-human, terroir
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: 8226, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The world of artisanal fermentation (e.g. craft beer, wine, cheese, etc.) has drawn significant attention from geographers. However, much of this research focuses on questions of placemaking, (neo)localism, tourism, economic development, and identity formation. Yet in this growing field, some of the smallest actors remain relatively unquestioned. While certain key ingredients in beer—yeast and hops, for example—constitute only a small percentage of the material weight of the finished product, they are key components of beer’s distinctive flavors. In this way, these tiny contributors carry a greater perceptual "weight" as the creators of sought-after flavors and aromas associated with certain beer styles. In an effort to better understand the role of these oft-neglected constituents, this paper explores the place of yeast—specifically Saccharomyces cerevisiae and its wild cousins—in the geography of beer. We theorize that yeast deserves greater attention as a more-than-human agent in the collaborative process of producing fermented beverages. Viewing yeast as an active contributor to brewing opens up new ways of understanding human-environment relationships, including questions of world-building associated with terroir. Yeast is central to cultural staples like bread and alcohol, and how we theorize and understand it has cultural, political, and environmental ramifications. With the rise of genetically modified organisms and synthetic biology's SC2.0 project (a synthesized eukaryotic genome), questions emerge related to how brewers will respond to the potential availability of yeasts capable of producing hop-like esters and how this may affect the identities and cultural or place-based associations of craft beer writ large.

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